I used to feel like a Mass Effect fan. Like part of that community that gushed about their crush on Garrus, or commiserated over those lengthy elevator rides. I used to talk strategies and relationships and dialogue tree options with fellow fans, scrutinizing decisions with one another and theorizing about what would happen next. Even just comparing Shepards. Are you Paragon or are you Renegade?
And then Mass Effect 3 happened.
This isn't the part where I talk about the infamous Mass Effect endings, though you'd be fair in assuming that, considering it was the Game That Launched A Thousand Cupcakes.
For the uninitiated, the controversies might have had more to do with steamy, interspecies sex. But for the fans, the ones following every downloadable step of the way, it was all about the ending.
But I never even got to that part of Mass Effect 3.
My memory of the series won’t be tainted by an ending with three options, all apparently equally and strangely disconnected from the decisions you’d been making over the years in this sci-fi action/RPG series. I barely even know what that whole hoopla is about, save for catching faint wind of it simply because it is my job to be invested in this industry and its communities.
No, my memory of the series I once loved is tainted in some other way. Tainted by a simple bug.
I’ve played all of Mass Effect 1. I’ve played all of Mass Effect 2. I somewhat rushed through 2 so I could review it in time, which meant I never got around to all the upgrades that Mordin so generously offered to research for me. Guns, ship defenses, etc. I passed on spending too much time scouting random planets for resources in the vast universe in favor of completing missions and writing up my thoughts.
Not taking my leisurely time with the game led to some unfortunate ends for my companions. One in particular I was heartbroken over. I replayed Mass Effect 2, without the pressure of a deadline, just to save them all. I had to prepare for the last chapter with Commander Shepard, and I didn’t want to miss out on anything. Least of all a hot romance.
Well I’d end up missing out on just about everything, because of a tiny little save-erasing bug.
I had been dedicating a portion of every day to Mass Effect 3 at this point. I'd come home, plop down on my bed and launch the game on my Xbox, scroll to where I could continue from my last save. But this time was different. This time there was no "continue" option. I could only start a new game. Wait, are you sure? What happened here? This can't be.
Swap from disc 2 to disc 1: nothing. Check my hard drive and lo and behold my save is there, seemingly uncorrupted. Transfer the save to a USB, transfer it back: nothing. Save it on the cloud: nothing. Panic starts to set in.
I contacted the very responsive Xbox Twitter support, but nothing. I tweeted angrily about it, and some friends responded saying they, too, suffered a similar fate. I tried to load the game up a few more times hoping the change of day might afford me some luck. Nothing. It seemed I had no other option to redeem my game. It was all over.
Fifteen hours of progress out the window. And I just couldn’t bring myself to restart yet another Mass Effect game. I could do it, once, for love and companionship. But a game-breaking bug was a nuisance enough to stop me dead in my Mass Effect track. At least before I had a record of my history, granted one I wasn't happy with. Before, it was my decision to restart the game. But this time I'd have to be dragged kicking and screaming.
I looked at my backlog. I looked at all the other games slated to release just around the corner. I thought about my social life. I just couldn’t make up the 15 hours I’d lost. I didn’t have the patience in me to repeat every action, every battle to see the series to its end. If I thought I could right the wrongs I made in my relationships in the game, I might have considered it. I missed out on my chance with both Garrus and Thane back in 2, left to live through the war alone. But without the chance for redemption, replaying 3 would just be a bitter ride. I couldn't face Thane again, to interact with him from a cold distance, our conversations on the level of friends that were close once upon a time.
That’s all it took to—granted, forcibly—rip me away from one of my most beloved franchises. I’ve spent countless hours in the Citadel and the many planets orbiting it and the other universes in Mass Effect. I’ve hunched over my controller for every additional downloadable content that BioWare released. I’ve slaved over a second playthrough just to ensure my romantic interest of choice was set up for a perfect end in the trilogy. But after all that work—and a lot of fun, too—I couldn’t bring myself to replay another 15 hours.
And just like that, with the flash of some data, my history with Mass Effect ended. Almost like a sudden break-up, and I’d never get closure.
So while other fans spent months fretting over BioWare’s stunning conclusion to the emotional, action-packed ride that was the Mass Effect experience with Commander Shepard, I sat back to stare at a blank screen, all of my memories halted in the face of a bug. I’d never end the Reaper threat. I’d never pursue a relationship with Thane. I’d never be a hero. My story would remain unfinished, and a third unwritten.
Months later, with other game releases to keep me distracted, I’m ok with all of that. But there will always be something missing, filled only with the painful thoughts of “what if?” And sometimes I gaze at my alphabetized library over at the “M” section and wonder how much of a masochist I would be to dedicate yet another sleepless weekend to this game. But ultimately, Shepard had her story. She had her shot. And you know what? For once the hero/heroine didn’t save the day. For once, this video game would have a sad ending, halted in time and forever at war.
It's Mass Effect Week at Kotaku. All week, we'll be taking a look back at the last five and a half years of galaxy-saving heroism, cross-species romance, and awkward dancing. You can follow along here.